May 25, 2006

Thai flood death toll rises as body search goes on

By Nopporn Wong-Anan

BANGKOK -- The death toll in northern Thailand\'s worst floods in 60 years, caused by a rare climatic factor, rose to 43 on Thursday with dozens more still missing as rescuers slogged through mud and debris for bodies.

Scientists and relief officials attributed the disaster to a rare collision of low-pressure areas from the Pacific and Indian Oceans causing unusually heavy rain to fall on deforested hills, particularly on Uttaradit province bordering Laos.

The hills, stripped by illegal loggers of the tree cover which could have held them together, or turned into orchards, could not hold the water and sections slid away as mudslides.

The slides and flash floods destroyed houses, cut roads and damaged dams as well as inundating towns and forcing thousands of people to flee their homes. They left large areas littered with trees, making access to more remote communities difficult.

Rescuers, joined by 1,000 troops, dogs and helicopters, were expected to find more bodies as the waters receded now that the rains at the beginning of the monsoon, which came earlier and heavier than usual this year, had eased.

"We fear we will find more dead under the mud when the water levels fall," said Suksunt Vanaputi, the vice governor of Uttaradit where most of the deaths occurred.

The situation was improving in the urban centers as electricity was restored, but the military was still having difficulty getting heavy machinery into the hills to repair roads and search for bodies, Suksunt told Reuters.

But it could get worse again, with the likelihood of more rain in most parts of Thailand raising the risk of new flash floods and mudslides, the Meteorological Department said in its daily forecast.


Uttaradit, 500 km (310 miles) north of Bangkok, was the worst hit province with 37 known dead after a deluge which poured down 330 mm (13 inches) in one 24-hour period.

The unusually heavy rain fell onto hills covered by orchards rather than the natural jungle which could have prevented floods and landslides by holding the soil together, experts said.

"We need all kinds of trees to decelerate water from the hills, not just the mono crops that we have now," said Royol Chitrdon, head of the government\'s Hydro & Agro Informatics Institute.

"A lesson to learn from this disaster is we need to improve the quality of our forests and how to improve water catchment on those farm lands," he told Reuters.

Tens of thousands of people were affected and the military was deployed to distribute food and water using trucks and helicopters.

In some hilly areas, however, the only way to get food and water into villages where stores had been destroyed was to carry it in on foot or by airlifts, officials said.

Military helicopters and special force soldiers were deployed to search for more survivors and distribute supplies.

"We need all kinds of humanitarian supplies from food, water, cooking utensils to underclothes and sanitary pads," Uttaradit disaster relief chief Nitipat Pimpiriyakul told Reuters.